The A-Z of Workshop Mini Gems Part 1 – Aims to Flexibility.

In order to get everyone in the zone for my workshop I thought I’d get going with an A-Z series of mini gems! These are small nuggets of information, to let you know some of the things that I consider important when doing a workshop. Some of them more obvious that others, but it’s all about helping to you think about some of the basics which are easy to overlook.

Of course we’ll be looking at the real meat of a workshop during the course, but these are just to whet your appetite…..

Today we’ve got A-F, Aims to Flexibility. I’ve been publishing these daily on my facebook page and twitter feed, so look out for G tomorrow…….

And if anyone would like to give me their own workshop top tips, I’d love to hear them!

Mini gems A mini gems B mini gems C mini gems D mini gems E mini gems F

Embracing those Workshop Fears and Remembering the Metaphorical Hug.

In my line of work I do find myself talking a lot about workshops. After all, it is what I do. Get me going and I can be talking about them for hours…..

I have however come to realise that not everyone shares my passion. That’s okay. The idea of standing up in front of a group of people (whether large or small) can be quite daunting. This is particularly true if you haven’t actually done it before and it is probably the IDEA of doing it that frightens you most. That’s often the way, it is the thought, the notion, the imagined experience of doing something that often frightens us most. In reality, these things often turn out to be not quite so bad.

I do remember my first ever workshop, although fortunately I wasn’t alone. I did it with a colleague of mine and we were delivering a training session on communication development and disorders. It was a topic I knew inside and out and we had planned the content meticulously. We had all sorts of interesting activities in mind, and had consulted and brainstormed so we felt we had it pretty well organised. We knew what we wanted people to learn, and the level of knowledge of our participants. We spent hours planning to get it right. And I was still scared.

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People Centred Meetings

A few weeks ago I wrote about bad meetings. The types of meetings you really don’t want to go to. The types of meetings that make people cringe and roll their eyes and wonder why they bother. But what about good meetings? Have you ever been to a good meeting?

Hands up…….there must be a few of you…..

Some companies, organisations and places of work have got it sussed. They know exactly how to conduct meetings that make people want to go to them (or at least not groan when one pops up in their diary). They know how to make them productive and how to make the best use of the resources in that meeting. By which I mean the people. Just as importantly, they know what they want to happen after the meeting has finished. They have thought about how the meeting might end and the follow up afterwards.

There is a lot of advice out there on what to do and what not to do about meetings. There are innovators of all kinds who have tried to revolutionalise meetings as we know them. You hear about people meeting standing up, or meetings that happen while you walk , meetings that are short and fast but happen every day , and of meetings that are long and involved and look more like a workshop. There are meetings that use lots of technology, and meetings that happen where no one is even in the same room (this example is another rather over parodied meeting but you get the picture!).

meeting.board room png


However your meeting looks, one of the of the most important elements of any meeting is the participation and engagement of the people present. It is about inviting the right people in the first place and ensuring that their time and energy is well used. If the structure and process of the meeting doesn’t allow people to take part, and contribute effectively then it isn’t going to be worth doing. While not everyone is as disengaged as this man we have all been to meetings where we have spent time doodling and thinking about our lunch rather than joining in!

The thing that can really ensure your meetings work are keeping the people as the primary focus, rather than the information you have to get through or the decisions you have to make. A bold statement perhaps. But if you have reached a decision based on only half of your participants really thinking hard about the discussion, then the chances are you may have to go back and revisit it at a later date. Getting people together for a meeting can be hard, so you want to make sure you make the most out of your opportunity. People holding a meeting often plan the agenda, organise a room, check people’s diaries and order tea and coffee. But they don’t always spend time focusing on how they are going to get everyone involved.

Depending on the different positions and personalities in the room, and what type of meeting you are having, the level of engagement and participation will vary. You will have slow talkers and fast talkers, loud people and quiet people, people that love to join in and people that hate it. There will be some people that disagree a lot and some people that agree with everything. The mix and how you deal with it are important. The dynamics of the group and how you manage it can make or break a good meeting.

So, no pressure then!

There are all sorts of tools and techniques for effectively managing a meeting and many different styles of doing so. Tools are really the materials and processes that you use to get everyone working (the activities), while techniques are the methods you employ to make them work (the behaviour that you use). And people “running” a meeting will have different roles; whether you see yourself as facilitating, chairing, managing, running, hosting, leading….there are subtle differences between all of these things, but you are essentially responsible for the meeting itself, and the people in it.

Meeting white board

So in order to keep everyone on track, it might help to think about:

Additional resources, tools and activities that you could use to make the meeting a cut above the normal sit down and talk around a board room table. You don’t all have to be doing elaborate ice breaking activities, or using the height of technology, but sometimes the addition of something other than just talking or looking at handouts is needed. It might be that adding more varied visual materials, writing comments on cards, asking people to get up and write on a flip chart paper, or splitting into side groups is enough. You don’t have to turn your board meeting into a workshop, but there are ideas that can be taken from workshops to keep your meeting attendees actively listening and thinking about the meeting. Sometimes though, a little bit of fun or some quirky activity can also be useful!



The way you are talking to your participants. If it looks as if someone doesn’t understand, can you paraphrase or ask a clarifying question? If someone is talking too much can you find a way to curtail them, or bring someone else in? If people are prone to giving one word answers, are there certain things that you can add or ask to draw some of the information out?

The way you are listening and watching the people in the meeting. There may be people who are itching to say something, or others who wish they could become invisible. But by keeping your eye on the way people are interacting you will get more value out of the people who are there.

Preparation and letting people know what you want from the meeting. People will always feel more comfortable when they know what is expected of them. This is not just about making sure they have the agenda beforehand or space in their calendar but about what they are expected to contribute and do in the actual meeting. Quite often meetings are so frequent and so un-engaging that we have got into the habit of just turning up for them and not really thinking about what we might want to add.

So, when you plan your next meeting, it might not need to be incredibly clever, radical or innovative. But a shift in focus to fostering an environment where people feel able to ask questions, talk freely and have productive interactions may be a good investment. Good meetings take work, and creating the time and space to make them better will in the long run provide better outcomes. A focus on people is hard when you have deadlines to meet, information to get through and tough decisions to make. But the people and their thoughts, opinions, ideas and questions are what make it a meeting. It is the skills and knowledge from the group of people in the room that are needed, they are what it’s really all about.

What are your top tips for making meetings better?



Digital Coffee Break Communication

What would Harrison Owen have developed instead I ask myself, if he had been thinking about the coffee breaks of today? Open Space technology as a facilitation method was developed using the idea of a coffee break, where he realised that the most valuable conversations often happen between meetings, and in coffee breaks. Not in the actual meetings themselves.


Looking around at many of the participants at a workshop I participated in recently it seemed that most of the conversations in the coffee break were taking place outside the room. Most of the conversations were with other people far away and with people probably doing a million and one things other than being in a workshop. These conversations were the digital kind, the tweeting kind, the messaging kind or the putting comments on facebook kind. Ok, so it was a Social Media course, with perhaps a little extra inspiration to be doing this, but still indicative of the kind of cultural communication shift that frames our coffee breaks these days.

And it wasn’t as if there weren’t any conversations, it was that they were mostly silent and not taking place between human beings sat conversing face to face.

It wasn’t that there wasn’t communication, it was just digital rather verbal.


And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that the participants didn’t want to talk to each other, we just had, during the workshop which was participatory and engaging in a way that involved everyone and gave us opportunities to talk.

I wonder if it was more to do with the fact that there is an extra dimension to the way we communicate these days, and we somehow need to make space for it. We need to have conversations with each other face to face, but we also crave that interaction with others in another way using the powers of technology. So, having just conversed and discussed and questioned all through the workshop, maybe there was this sense of having had enough of actual people, of being sociable in the traditional sense. And in doing so, using the digital world as some kind of break from verbal interaction people, the need to switch modes, to do something other than talk to each other.

But how does this all fit in, and what is the priority? Surely there is room for both, whether in our every day personal life, or at work. The way we communicate has become super multidimensional. But has something had to give, has one type of communication been diminished at the expense of another? Or are we just adapting in a very fast way, without really knowing about it? Quantity is not necessarily quality, maybe our face to face conversations have become more efficient as we need to ensure we have time for the other types of conversations. Maybe if we equate coffee to actual face to face conversation, we are need to equate tea and herbal tea and smoothies and juices and other soft drinks to the different type of communication available. We like choice, don’t we?

I like to think that there is room for everything, at some point, in its place. But it is a question of balance. And getting that balance right, having the right conversations in the right place, with the right people has perhaps become more complicated. The rules of engagement are constantly changing and the methods that we use to engage so vast and fluid that perhaps we need to take care we don’t get lost in the choices.


I do like to think that the coffee break to some degree will always involve a bit of banter, and chatter and that there will always be those spontaneous conversations at the vending machine or over the kettle. There is an intrinsic and irreplaceable value in our face to face conversations and interactions. But they are very seldom just face to face for very long and our conversations may need to be created in different ways as people divide their time between the here and now, the face to face and that need to digitally connect.



Learning from the Comedy Value of Bad Meetings

I am the kind of person that gets inspiration from all over the place. I get flashes of ideas and I seem to get them from everywhere; eating food, walking to the corner shop, talking to people, listening to music. I’d like to say that ideas come to me on my morning jog, but they don’t. I don’t embrace the world of jogging. I do love swimming but I rather like the meditative counting of lengths and the slight brain switch off that it provides. It wouldn’t be the ideal time for ideas to arrive anyway, not without some kind of waterproof notebook. Anyway, I digress……

flashes of ideas

My latest inspiration has come from watching TV. Which is interesting since I do so little of it (watch TV I mean). Have you ever seen W1A? I have to say, it’s brilliant. But it’s also painful to watch. It’s painful because it takes the extremes of reality, situations that we are all familiar with and pokes fun of them. In case you haven’t seen this slice of (fictional) satirical hilarity, it’s set in the offices of the management team in the BBC. Very funny.

And the meetings they have are what I want to have a little chat about………Continue reading